My Perfect Weekend in Cusco, Peru
Diane Valenti, founder of Llama Expeditions, shares her perfect weekend in the Andean city of Cusco.
Ideal weekend companion: My brother would be my ideal weekend companion. He is the ultimate “surfer dude” which means that he doesn’t panic when we experience the inevitable unexpected event such as a delayed flight, lost baggage, or excursion into an iffy neighborhood.
We also share an intense curiosity about the world. This means that he is up for exploring everything and anything from museums, to churches, to archeological ruins, and remote beaches.
Best place to take him: Cusco is one of the most magical places I have ever been. The altitude (10,560 feet) literally takes your breath away as you wander narrow cobblestone streets. Much of Cusco is built upon and around Inca stonework. It is amazing to see giant stones fit perfectly one top of the other without benefit of mortar.
I like to stay in San Blas, the quaint artist quarter of the city.
Friday: The first day, we would take it easy to give ourselves time to acclimate to the altitude. If we both felt well enough, we would visit the Coca Shop to taste some of the free samples of various coca products. We might then explore the various artisan shops in the San Blas neighborhood. We could also walk down to the Plaza de Armas to enjoy hot chocolate at Trotamundos while we indulge in a little people watching from the balcony.
On the way back to the hotel, we might view Inca artifacts at the Inca Museum, look for the twelve-angle stone, and take a picture with the ever-present costumed Inca.
Saturday: The second day we would get up early to visit the four Inca archeological sites on the outskirts of Cusco: Sacsayhuamán, Q’enko, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay.
Sacsayhuamán was once a military fortress. We would walk between enormous stones fitted together with amazing precision. At the small site of Q’enko, which means zigzag in Quechua, we would look for rock carved with zigzagging channels through which sacrificial llama blood once flowed. At the red fort of Puca Pucara, we would explore the paths and plazas of what was most likely a storage facility or lodge during Inca times. Finally, at Tambomachay, we would see a well-preserved example of the sacred water fountains used by the Inca rulers and royal women to bathe.
That afternoon we would take a guided tour of the colonial cathedral and Qoricancha to see the melding of the Inca and Spanish cultures evident in the architecture and art.
Sunday: The next day we might arrange to do the one day Inca Trail. This trail takes you through the last part of the four day version. You pass archeological ruins such as Huinayhuayna, which means Forever Young in Quechua, as you hike to Machu Picchu. We would spend the night in Aguas Calientes so that we could get up early the next day to tour Machu Picchu.
Monday: We would rise with the sun to take the early bus to Machu Picchu and arrive before the crowds. We would then have several hours to explore the ruins before returning to Ollantaytambo via a midmorning train.
From the train station, we would head back to Cusco. If time allows, we could visit Salinas de Maras. Here, the Incas diverted water to form thousands of pools where a thin crust of salt remains as the sun evaporates the water. These salt mines have been in continuous operation since the Inca Empire.
Great Meals: Breakfast is always at the hotel. Many hotels serve a breakfast buffet accompanied by strong coffee, coca tea, and a selection of juice.
Granja Heidi (Heidi's Farm) offers delicious, fresh meals and friendly service at an excellent price. This restaurant uses fresh ingredients and produce that come straight from the farm that the owners maintain on the outskirts of Cusco. The restaurant is actually named after Heidi, a mule who lives on the farm! They have a great lunch (vegetarian or non-vegetarian) that includes an appetiser, soup, main course, dessert, and lemonade or chicha morada (purple corn beverage). The menu also offers a good selection of quiches and salads. Their home-baked desserts are exquisite.
Another great lunch place is Aldea Yanapay. This restaurant was started to raise funds for an after school program that helps at-risk children excel in school.
Heart’s Café has the best box lunches to take on the Inca Trail. We could pick up our thick, tasty sandwiches made with fresh ingredients, in Ollantaytambo on the way to the train station. Profits from this restaurant provide support for a project that helps women and children in the Andes.
For dinner, Nuna Rayni is run by an enthusiastic group of young South Americans who've had restaurant training in the US and speak excellent English. They offer a comprehensive menu, moderate prices, cosy atmosphere, and attentive service. Trout, beef, and alpaca dishes are excellent and attractively presented. They also serve some of the best pisco sours (the national drink of Peru) in town.
One of my favourite restaurants in Cusco, Pacha Papa is located in front of the church of San Blas. The courtyard setting makes dining here a delight. You can try typical dishes such as cuy or stew in a mud pot, baked in a firewood oven.
Incanto, built in an old Inca palace, offers a stunning example of Inca stonework. Dishes reflect an Italian influence infused with typical Peruvian ingredients. The glass-enclosed kitchen and live harp music give Incanto a unique touch among Cusco's finest restaurants.
Indio Feliz is situated off a small alley in Aguas Calientes. It is best to get here early as it always fills up fast. The restaurant serves franco-peruvian cuisine in an upscale setting.
One weekend item you couldn't be without: Diamox to help me acclimate to the altitude more quickly.
The perfect end to a perfect weekend: A farewell dinner in the courtyard at Pacha papa.
- Llama Expeditions offers a range of guided tours through Peru, from exploring famous sites such as Machu Picchu and the Amazon rainforest to hiking the Inca trail. In addition to taking in the stunning scenery and experiencing incredible adventure, these tours also allow travelers to make a personal connection to the country and its people. Llama Expeditions' tours offer full cultural immersion giving guests the opportunity to see how Peruvians really live - to talk with them about their dreams and accomplishments and to learn about the challenges they face. Interactions with carefully selected nonprofit and grassroots organisations are also woven into the itinerary when possible giving participants the chance to experience the difference gifts of healthy food, school supplies, clothing, or sunglasses can make in the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.
- Trotamundos (177 Plaza de Armas)
- Inca Museum (103 Cuesta del Almirante, Cusco)
- Granja Heidi (Cuesta San Blas 525, Cusco)
- Pacha Papa and Incanto (www.cuscorestaurants.com)